Getting things done: Unravelling the neurocognitive mechanisms of adaptive decision-making


“Think before you act!” The canonical view in both popular and academic psychology is that deliberate decision-making is always better than heuristic decision-making. However, in the real world one should not always spend all available resources and time to deliberate on a decision: perfectionism comes at a high cost. Critically, once we acknowledge that different decision strategies have different advantages and disadvantages we have to also accept that we need a brain mechanism to decide how to decide. To date, there is no understanding of such a mechanism. Here I propose to test and revise a neurocognitive model of adaptive recruitment of different decision-making strategies, and subsequently assess the validity and relevance of this model in real-life.

Previously, I have discovered that the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine affect choosing between actions by modulating their estimated costs and benefits. The obvious next question is whether similar operations are involved when choosing between decision strategies. Using pharmacological interventions in combination with neuro-imaging, I will test the hypothesis that dopamine in the striatum encodes an approximation of the costs of deliberation time, thereby promoting fast, heuristic responding. In contrast, when stakes are high, serotonergic signals will enable suppression of these heuristic responses to allow time-consuming decision-processes to control choice.

My second aim is to test the real-world relevance of this neurocognitive model. I anticipate that both excessive heuristic responding and excessive deliberation are detrimental in real-life. First, I will identify personality and psychiatric symptom characteristics of people who show such detrimental excessive deliberation, focussing on neuroticism/perfectionism traits. Next, I will assess whether excessive deliberation in a laboratory setting predicts work performance and burn-out symptoms. My testing grounds are the time-strapped work environments of finance and health care, where knowing when to act and knowing when to think, is absolutely vital.





Dr. H.E.M. den Ouden

Verbonden aan

Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Donders Institute


Dr. H.E.M. den Ouden, Dr. H.E.M. den Ouden


01/10/2018 tot 30/09/2021